Procedure Committee

3 April 2008 No. 6


Publication of First Report: e-Petitions

EMBARGOED UNTIL SUNDAY 6 APRIL 2008 AT 00.01am

Further information and advance copies: Liz Parratt 07917 488978

'Commons should have e-petitions' say MPs

The House of Commons Procedure Committee today publishes a report on e-Petitions, proposing a scheme which would:

€ Enable e-petitions to be submitted via www.parliament.uk;

€ Retain the direct involvement of constituency MPs in the petitions procedure;

€ Lead to three Westminster Hall debates based on petitions every year.

A four month inquiry by the Committee concluded that e-petitioning offers a simple, effective and transparent way for the public to tell MPs about what matters to them and to indicate levels of support for their concerns. The Committee's proposed scheme would provide petitioners with advice and support and with a route to follow up the petition after its presentation€”as well as improving engagement and transparency.

Experience elsewhere, particularly on the 10 Downing Street website, has demonstrated high levels of public interest and engagement. In its first year of operation the Downing Street site received some 29,000 petitions and 5.5 million signatures. The House of Commons has not experienced a comparable volume since the late nineteenth century.

Chairman Rt Hon Greg Knight MP said:

"Historically and constitutionally the House of Commons is the place to which petitions should properly be presented. It is time for the House to reclaim that role in the internet age."

The Committee also considered the possible risks, including trivial or 'mischievous' petitions; costs; implications for MPs' workload, and the consequences of failure.

The report concludes that if e-petitioning is to attract the widest possible range of users, it will need to be able to adapt and respond to their expectations, and to cope with potentially high and unpredictable levels of demand: the introduction of e-petitioning in itself will raise expectations and the House will need to show that it is willing and able to respond.

Greg Knight continued:

"We are not aware of any other existing scheme of comparable scale and ambition. It has the potential to open up the House's proceedings in new and to some extent unpredictable ways."

The Committee's recommendations are likely to be debated by the House of Commons this summer.

Notes:

1. Government view: in The Governance of Britain, the Government stated that it believed that the House of Commons should have 'up to date procedures for considering petitions' and that 'people should be able to petition the House of Commons with as much ease as they should be able to petition the Prime Minister.' (Cm 7170, para 151 and 161). In its response to the Committee's previous report the Government repeated its support for an e-petitions system (Cm 7193, para 3).

2. History: the petitioning of the House of Commons has a long history stretching back at least to the late middle ages.

€ Originally petitions were overwhelmingly requests for the redress of personal grievances.

€ Petitions requesting changes in general legislation or public policy first came to prominence in the early years of the seventeenth century.

€ Radical politicians such as John Wilkes used them for purposes of national agitation in the second half of the eighteenth century and it is from that time the modern form of public petition may be said to date.

€ The early years of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the numbers of petitions presented to the House of Commons. In the five years ending in 1805, 1,026 were presented€”a figure broadly comparable with the numbers we experience today some two hundred years later. In the five years ending in 1831, however, 24,492 were presented. Many of these petitions related to the need for parliamentary reform and in particular to the passage of what has become known as the Great Reform Act of 1832.

€ The petitions presented in support of that Act were the first example of what became a series of major campaigns fought during the nineteenth century in which mass petitions to the House of Commons played a significant part. In 1843, 33,898 petitions were received, the largest number ever in a single session.

€ The history of petitions in the twentieth century was broadly one of decline. Since the 1912-13 parliamentary session (when nearly 10,000 petitions were presented against the Established Church (Wales) Bill) the number of petitions presented in a single session exceeded one thousand only once (in 1988-89, where many were in favour of legislation to protect the human embryo). Nonetheless petitions with very large numbers of signatures continued to be presented either from organisations (motoring organisations petitioned against motor taxation in 1927 and for the restoration of the basic petrol ration in 1948) or on major issues of political controversy (eg for the prohibition of atomic weapons in 1950-51).

3. Details of the Committee's preferred option:

€ E-petitions can be submitted via www.parliament.uk;

€ If they comply with the House's rules, the petitioner's constituency MP will be asked to act as facilitator;

€ The e-petition is then posted on the parliamentary website for a set period. Others may add their names to it;

€ At the end of the period, it is closed. Members will be able to indicate support for it;

€ It is then presented to the house, either electronically or on the floor;

€ Petitioners and signatories may opt in to receive updates on the progress of the e-petition and/or up to two emails from their constituency MP;

€ E-petitions will then be printed in Hansard and sent to select committees and may be considered by them;

€ The Government will normally be expected to reply within two months of presentation;

€ On three occasions each year, certain e-petitions will be debated by the House of Commons in Westminster Hall.